Months ago, a chef from Los Angeles waxed poetic to me about the merits of dry-cured ham from Jinhua, a city in the Zhejiang Province of China.
"Definitely go to Jinhua and get me a piece of that ham," he had instructed. He began detailing his extremely nerdy intention of studying the microbes on it.
Stronger in taste and smell than prosciutto and jamón serrano, Jinhua ham is currently prohibited from being imported into the United States. It is, however, a prized ingredient in Chinese cooking—usually used in stews or sautéed with vegetables. It's a versatile ingredient loved throughout China because of its intensely umami flavor.
"I just need a little piece," the chef said. "The taste is divine and I want to figure out how to recreate it here."
First recorded in the Tang Dynasty in 10th century AD, the ham has over 1,000 years of history and is the oldest variety in China. Marco Polo allegedly brought ham-making techniques from Jinhua to Europe, and many of today's processing technologies for dry-cured hams are evolved from the techniques from this modest Chinese city.
Once in China, I eventually make it to Jinhua. On my second day there, I find myself in the middle of a ham factory, in a room with hundreds of pig carcasses hanging around me. The company, Jindu, was formally established in 1974 and processes 50,000 to 60,000 pieces of ham each year.
"So this is how ham is made," says my friend Sherry Zhen, a Jinhua native, says, staring wide-eyed at the salt-covered carcasses. I wince; the smell of the swine corpses is rather sharp.
"Truth be told, I have never been here either," notes her mom, who is our connection to the factory because she knows the owner. "Jinhua locals, we don't eat the ham all that much. It's too salty."
Indeed, Jinhua ham is quite salty.
At the factory, a pig's thigh is marinated in salt for up to two months. The salt is eventually washed off and then the leg is hung up to dry for four to five days. After that, it is left in a low-temperature room to naturally ferment for around five to eight months. The leg turns hard and dense, and when it's ready, it's vacuumed-sealed and packaged in beautiful handled boxes. Each thigh sells for about $80 US apiece, depending on its size and how long it's been aged.
The final product is smoky and strong. It is the terroir of Jinhua that gives the ham its signature taste.
"We have all four seasons in Jinhua. We're located in a basin, and so our climate is ideal for ham processing," Le-An Ni, owner of a ham shop on Qingnian Road, says. Qingnian Road in Jinhua is dedicated to ham shops and is one of the oldest such streets in town. Le-An has been making hams for 20 years, and says his family can't remember a time when they weren't making ham.
"We begin salting in winter, when it is low temperature," he says. "We ferment in the spring and the entire process is completed by autumn. The difference in temperatures is what makes the product unique."
Traditionally, Jinhua ham is derived from a local breed of pig called liangtouwu, which has been around for about 1,600 years. Known as "panda pig" for its (quite adorable) black and white patterns, it is prized for its naturally small size and high fat content.
"It takes a long time to breed them," Le-An says. "They really take in all the nutrients and are very flavorful."
Today, very few ham producers use the panda pig because they're expensive and rather rare. Also, due to economic reforms, the market has opened up to more profitable species of pig. However, the same principles apply to choosing swine: the fatter the pig, the better.
Back at the ham factory, a worker takes me to see all the stages of production. "I don't know why you think this is interesting," my guide says. "It's really simple. We just salt it and let it hang."
According to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations on Jinhua ham, "[t]here is thus no real scientific method to be followed in preparing the ham; producers have learned their manufacturing methods as a cultural heritage."
This is extremely evident throughout my tour. Aside from piles of pig, the factory is surprisingly bare. It's composed of a warehouse for storing, another for packaging, and a couple rooms dedicated to salting and fermenting. There isn't much equipment lying around or even visible temperature gauges. I watch as an old man clutches a cigarette in his mouth and runs around filling up basins with water to wash the salted hams. He seems to be the only one working.
But somehow, by the power of legend, Jinhua's ham has become the pride of the city. There are streets dedicated to dry-cured ham, I even toured a museum run by the largest Jinhua ham producer, Jinzi, where I got to touch a piece of thigh retailing for $1,200 USD.
Sherry takes me to the restaurant of the Best Western World Trade Hotel, where they serve ham lightly roasted, brushed with a bit of honey and osmanthus flowers. The consistency is reminiscent of pulled pork and I am thankful for the sweetness of the honey, which balances out the innate saltiness of the ham.
It is ethereal and has a complexity to it unlike any cut of meat I've ever had.
Sherry, who hadn't had the dish for years, considers it rather special.
"Jinhua locals, we don't eat the ham all that much because we take advantage of the fact that it's always here. People in Guangdong, ironically, use it much more in their cooking than we do," she tells me. "Here, we use it more for gifts."
At the end my time in town, Sherry and her mother gift me a huge box of ham which weighs a total of 6.6 pounds.
I stare at the fleshy carcass, astonished, and accept the expensive gift in acute embarrassment. I had only wanted to see the factory and eat a bit of ham. I did not intend to acquire an entire thigh.
Right now, it's sitting on top of my suitcase packaged in a glorious box cushioned with gold fabric.
I definitely won't be able to sneak this back to America.